Dr.Dawg

The achievements of the #Occupy movement

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Wall Street.jpg

What do the #Occupy folks stand for? What are their demands? What do they hope to achieve?

We’ve seen variants of these questions for the past few weeks, often wielded more like accusations. They are usually rhetorical questions, because, in the questioners’ minds, the answers are obvious. The movement is amorphous, fragmented, stands for everything and nothing, and the coming cold weather will accomplish what the brutish New York City cops could not. The tents will come down and the people will return to their homes—those who have homes, of course.

But the #Occupy movement, now spreading around the world, has already achieved what the more traditional mass protests—in Quebec, for example, or in various European streets—have been unable to do.

The traditional organizational arc is to organize a massive rally about something, listen to speeches, congratulate ourselves on the turnout, and then expect something magic to happen. I’ve seen this again and again in my previous life as a union activist, and helped to organize some of those big demos on Parliament Hill myself.

Watching the big celebratory crowds, I always experienced a sinking of the heart. These were great feel-good moments, but what would we do the next day? What—to repeat one of the questions with which I began this article—were we expecting to achieve?

Lather, rinse, repeat. We were sleepwalking through a ritual.

So we protest veterans look with wonder upon the #Occupy movement, not unmixed with frustration. The energy levels are high, and getting higher. The occupations are not one-day wonders. But those of us trapped in the old organizational boxes, let’s admit it, find ourselves yearning in our heart of hearts for a programme of concrete demands, for discipline, for leadership.

We’re wrong. Our better selves know where that kind of thing led in the past. Something new is happening, a political paradigm shift arising out of what my co-blogger Marie Ève calls “intelligent chaos.”

We’d better get used to the fact that the terms “left” and “right” may have reached the limits of their usefulness as political categories. I’m not going to let go of them without a hell of a fight, but the #Occupy movement doesn’t seem terribly interested in them.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is caught in this bind. He observes and opposes opportunistic attempts to force the #Occupy movement into the usual binary political boxes—but can’t resist offering the movement some advice and a set of sample demands.

What brings all those people into the streets is common values, not a political programme. The spirited discussions at the various assemblies revolve around the kind of society that embodies those values, and how to get from here to there. Those painfully horizontal discussions—the endless process matters, the emphasis on consensus, the human microphones and so on, may or may not bear fruit later on. But something fundamental has already occurred.

By confronting that accidental oxymoron, Wall Street, the movement has managed to reframe political discussion on the national and international level. We’re seeing, I believe, an Arab Spring of people rising at last against corporate globalism, its multinational agglomerations of capital, its efficient networks of exchange, its complex financial arrangements, its towering hierarchies, its utter lack of accountability, and its virtually uncontrolled rapacity. But at the very least, politics as usual will never be the same.

Verticality, meet horizontality. We can join the #Occupy movement, or be another brick in the Wall.

We see, as with new eyes, that there is no substantive difference between Democrats and Republicans, or, here at home, between any of the major political parties. They occupy an infinitesimal slice of a vast political spectrum, or perhaps universe is a better word. Both the Republicans and the Democrats* gave massive handouts to the banks, whose executives immediately pocketed huge bonuses while ordinary folks continued to lose their houses. When there’s money to be made, even out of a bloodstained narco-state like Colombia, the Liberals and the Conservatives here in Canada discover common cause.

The #Occupy movement knows all this at the gut level. Many of its participants have personally felt the lash of capital. They know that somehow the government, whatever party is in power, works with Wall Street, not for the plain folks. They know who’s getting richer and who’s getting poorer. The #Occupy movement is profoundly radical, meaning that they are getting to the root of things. They have put our puny politics into a wide new perspective.

Imagine coming to earth from another planet and observing our bizarre social arrangements. There are the means of production over there, more efficient and effective and productive than ever before in human history. Here are the new readily-available communication networks that link ordinary people. Everywhere there is a colossal pool of human capital: thinkers, doers, so many trained and educated and motivated.

The inhabitants of planet Earth could all be living reasonably well, blessed with such resources. And yet those social arrangements are such that incalculable wealth—largely consisting of numbers stored in a computer that define who has power and who does not—is concentrated in a few unaccountable hands. Calls ring out, in the midst of this wealth, for austerity as living standards plummet. The environment continues to be degraded. Human talents and skills and energy are wasted. Brute force is used if anyone gets too noisy about it.

The #Occupy movement suggests that another world is possible.

The mindless force used against peaceful assemblies in New York, and the mass arrests taking place elsewhere, are a necessary part of the theatre that has been dissolving audiences into participants and challenging our complacent assumptions. When capital is challenged—excuse the anthropomorphism—it can lash out blindly. But the equal and opposite part of the play is the attempt by various johnny-come-latelies, from Barack Obama on down, to appropriate the very energy that confronts them. Our own Mark Carney calls the #Occupy movement “constructive.”

Give Carney the credit, at least, for having seen the phenomenon, weighed it, and conceded its huge potential power. The Financial Times is on board as well. A few thousand people in the streets and the more enlightened and strategic representatives of capital are already suing for peace!

Capital always strives to accommodate, and ultimately to digest, those who challenge it. This time it may not be able to move swiftly enough. How can it adapt to a growing movement that denounces greed itself—a defining characteristic of capitalism, indeed its basic driving force?

I, for one, am learning every day from this new and potent movement that is challenging my own assumptions as surely as those of Wall Street. It is indeed “inchoate,” not to be confused with “incoherent” (check out the link: William F. Buckley Jr. must be turning in his grave). That is, #Occupy, coherent where it needs to be, is at an initial stage of development.

Where it goes, where we go, depends upon the 99%, how our converging and diverging interests are resolved. Meanwhile, the whole world is watching and texting and blogging and videotaping. In one way or another, we are all participating. No blueprints, no maps, no well-worn paths: an exciting time we’re living in, no mistake. Perhaps—dare we dream?—we’re at the beginning, not the end, of history.


* Reader and co-blogger Alison correctly points out that the TARP bailouts were initiated by George Bush, not Obama, as I had stated. The Obama administration administered them, claiming it had reformed the original giveaway program, and it planned for more. Text amended accordingly, and I apologize for the error in the original.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on October 17, 2011 3:13 PM.

Amerika: "Hypocrisy has its own elegant symmetry" was the previous entry in this blog.

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